It's the rivalry which needs no introduction. Unless one resides in a cave, the legendary enmity between Alabama and Auburn is well-known; the Iron Bowl, Cam Newton leading the comeback from 24-0, the Kick Six, the trees, all of it. Paul Finebaum made a career out of setting the fanbases at one another's throats like a radio Jerry Springer. They're so full of hate that every member of the press in Alabama -- according to college football fans -- hates their team while being paid shills for the other; the catch is, the fans of the other team feel the exact same way. So there's no better way to end our series than with Auburn's in-state nemesis.
Our expert witness for today's hearing: the inestimable Erik_RBR (@gothlaw), gadfly and general racounteur at SB Nation's Roll Bama Roll, master of #HotTakes, enemy of unleavened Gumpdom, black metal connoisseur, and devotee of chaos. Erik and I have collaborated before on some matters related to legal action against the NCAA, so in addition to his myriad other qualifications he was the perfect foil for this enterprise.
Jon: Before we get into the product on the field, this wouldn't be any fun if we didn't dig into off-field topics too. So let's start with this: Tell us about your absolute worst memory of an Auburn game, and your favorite moment against them.
Erik: The absolute worst memory has to be the last 33 minutes of the 2010 Iron Bowl. An underachieving Alabama team was cruising 24-0, with Mark Ingram off to the races to seal the deal. He inexplicably fumbled (the second lost fumble of his career, and the only one of 2010), and the ball squirted into the endzone for a touchback. The Legend of Cam Newton was cemented as the $200,000 Man took over the rest of the game en route to a 28-27 victory. That one hurt a lot.
My favorite was the 1985 Iron Bowl. Bear was dead. There were no national or conference implications here. The hate was so vicious that the game was still played at “neutral” Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama (45 miles from Tuscaloosa, 178 from Auburn.) That game has a play that lives in college football lore, known simply as “The Kick.” I was a little kid, but when I met my college sweetheart, one of our first discussions was “where were you during The Kick?” AND WE WERE HARDLY ALONE. It resonates still. There have been many more important Iron Bowls, but few that arouse my inner Gump. Four lead changes in the fourth quarter? One time out? Thirty seven seconds? 53-yard kick with six seconds left? Be prepared to punch through a wall, people!
Jon: We're always a bit curious about how we're viewed outside the Big 12. We've talked about this at length for years, but for our readers: what are your impressions of K-State?
Erik: I'm old. I remember K-State as a punching bag up there with Northwestern. If I were to describe Kansas State (under Snyder at least), it'd be thus: Inconsistent, generally well-coached, and doing the best they can under the circumstances. There's no secret that Bill loves JuCos and loves cupcakes... like Texas Tech, that is how he built this program up. But for every win over say, a Texas or Oklahoma, there are baffling struggles with awful teams (looking at you Farmageddon). And, it may be a talent thing on the line, but the offense has never terrified me. Darren Sproles was the last back of note (no, Collin Klein, you don't count.) In a place like Manhattan, getting those Louisiana linemen is difficult to be sure, but the offense has always played much softer than a very well-coached defense (especially backers and secondary). So, yeah, inconsistent or, more like, disparate. The defense and offense are night and day in terms of physicality. Let's be honest too, I have my prejudices, and I hate the shotgun.
Jon: Luck plays a part in everything, obviously, and almost no team wins a championship without catching a break here and there. Do you feel Auburn's run to the BCS title game last year was more a function of fortune than talent, or did they really belong?
Erik: I'd love to hate away last year's results. But, the offensive line had four returning upperclassmen and a senior feature back with speed, quickness, toughness. In fact, in the preseason, I broke down that offense with predictive measures and had Auburn winning 9-10 games.. That team was four plays away from being 7-5. Were there two “miracles,” both at home -vs. Georgia and Alabama? If you want to call it that. These “miracles” can only be effected, however, by a coaching staff that puts players in position to capitalize on the improbable. Was Auburn the #2 team in the country last season? Not a chance. Was it luck? Again, not a chance. When talent fails, default to coaching, and Malzahn did an exceptional job with a duct-tape back-seven and a converted safety playing QB – that QB, BTW, is now a 15/2 Heisman guy at Bovada. Do you think it was luck?
Jon: How about this year? What are your impressions of the team in general, and how serious a threat do you think they are to reach the playoff? Other than Nick Marshall, who should we be really concerned about?
Artis-Payne has 289 yards on the ground this year, and there's Roc Thomas and Corey Grant. Don't be fooled by those numbers though. The offensive line is not the dominant force as last season, and those three guys are all pretty pedestrian compared to Tre Mason. If you want to be scared, outside of Marshall's playmaking, keep an eye on “Duke” Williams. Sammie Coates and his speed get the pub, but this kid is legitimately compared to Terrell Owens: Same size, physicality, hands, and maybe even a little faster. Just a terror to defend.
As for repeat chances, I am pessimistic. Auburn may win 10 games -and given its defense, is very likely to only hit that mark if they pray real hard. The schedule is brutal. The Tigers travel to Alabama, host South Carolina, LSU, and Texas A&M, travel to Georgia, Oxford, and Mississippi State. That's seven ranked teams, three of them in the Top-10, two on track for the Playoffs. The '86 Bears may have two losses there. I'll call it a regression-to-the-mean year: 8-4, 9-3 sounds right.
(Ed. Note: some game locations were incorrect, and have been corrected since publication.)
Jon: Granted you probably don't follow K-State as closely as you do Auburn because SEC and all, but is there anything you've seen with Auburn that you think K-State is well-positioned to exploit?
Erik: I am trying to answer objectively: Auburn's defense is a hybrid 3-3-5/4-2-5 scheme under Ellis. It is very aggressive, and the pass rush is fierce. The downside to that is that the secondary is risk-reward: they make a few plays, and give up tremendous chunks in the process. The Tigers will not ask you to dink and dunk in the passing game. They also have a terrible propensity to leave the TE uncovered. Anything involving play-action over the backers is apt to be a big gainer. And, finally, where Kansas State must win this one is up front. The Auburn DL is rightly considered one of the better pass rushing units in the country. But, the linebackers are easily the worst in the SEC outside of Vandy/Kentucky, and the middle is nougat-soft. Pound, pound, nibble the middle, hit them with deep play action and work the seams.
Jon: They're coming to our place, and that means that at least some of their fans will be there too. Now, level with us: what's that going to be like if they've got any sizable presence?
Erik: Literacy levels in the Little Apple will drop precipitously. I jest, of course. Truth is, Auburn will travel, and like most SEC teams, they are generally genial guests (they are terrible hosts to rivals, but that's a different matter entirely). They will “War Eagle” you to death, to be sure; but, if you drop by a tent, you'll find that most can facilely discuss the Big Twelve as readily as the SEC, and they will feed you very well to boot. When the game starts? They are very, very loud. Jordan Hare -- with its tiny 90,000 seats -- is always one of the loudest roadies in the SEC.
Jon: Finally, it's that obligatory moment when I wring a prediction out of you. What's your call?
Erik: I'm taking the over. Auburn's speed isn't going to be the difference; Baylor etc. are much faster. Okie Lite is as physical. Oklahoma is more talented. But just how nasty they are at the point of attack may surprise you. This team hits. Also, and this is no disrespect to KSU, I don't know how a fairly average secondary can be expected to cover Dukes, Melvin Ray and Sammie Coates while also watching the Tigers platoon four running backs and spy Nick Marshall. KSU gets its shots, but just far too many playmakers on the other side to keep up. The Wildcats will enjoy the rather generous Auburn defense,and the homefield, but I think it's 34-30 Auburn (blech). I share my solidarity here with a hearty Roll Snyd, and I wish you joy in staking the undead heart of the most cultish team this side of Texas A&M.
Thanks much, good sir. That was downright polite. In fairness, we should note for our readers that Erik's disdain for Auburn pales in comparison to his loathing for that team K-State beat in the Cotton Bowl once, as is right and proper for a true Bama fan. We were going to mine Twitter for some other reactions, but after the fantastic response here the last two days, we decided it wasn't necessary; the comments to this post are almost certain to be popcorn-worthy on their own.
Tomorrow, we put a bow on it with a Q&A with one last SEC squad: Auburn itself. Our friends from College and Magnolia will answer our questions and respond to the (obviously!) false and libelous claims made against them by their enemies.